President Barack Obama challenged the political status quo in a speech before more than 80,000 at the University of Michigan’s spring commencement Saturday, calling on graduates to embrace change as a means of strengthening the country’s democracy for years to come.
Obama’s speech in Michigan Stadium was a clear denunciation of the current state of American politics — an environment he said is never a place for the “thin-skinned or faint-of-heart” but has recently been pushed further by the “incredibly difficult moment in which we find ourselves as a nation.”
Through his words, the president attempted to convey his notion of citizenship to the maturating generation before him. He tried at times to reshape current conceptions of small and big government, pushed for a more civil political discourse and implored graduates to participate in their government in the way they see most fit.
After severe thunderstorms drenched Ann Arbor this morning and threatened to undermine some of the excitement over the event, the rain slowed to a drizzle about an hour out from the ceremony’s start and came to a complete halt shortly before it was set to begin. The gray clouds overhead did linger though throughout most of the ceremony.
In attendance for Obama’s speech was a big crowd of University and state officials, including University President Mary Sue Coleman, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, University Provost Teresa Sullivan, University President Emeritus James Duderstadt, the University’s current Board of Regents and several former regents.
Those on stage and in the crowd alike roared when Obama was presented with his honorary degree and took to the podium to deliver his remarks.
As the president approached the microphone, one person in the crowd yelled out, “We love you,” to which Obama responded “I love you back.”
Beginning his speech, Obama described the current political atmosphere by highlighting a letter sent to him by a kindergarten class that included the question, “Are people being nice?”
“Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago —particularly one of the cable channels — you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question,” Obama told the audience.
And while Obama pointed to name calling by politicians and pundits and a media that highlights “every hint of conflict,” he admitted that recent events have largely contributed to the charged political climate.
“The fact is, when you leave here today you will search for work in an economy that is still emerging from the worst crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said. “You live in a century where the speed with which jobs and industries move across the globe is forcing America to compete like never before.”
However, Obama added that America has had a long history of partisan rancor.
“Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business,” Obama said. “It’s always been a little less genteel during times of great change.”
Obama’s speech then turned from these challenges and the toxic political discourse of today, to what role graduates must play to improve the country’s democracy in the future.
“And now the question for your generation is this: how will you keep our democracy going?” Obama asked. “At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and well in this century?”
While not wishing to offer “some grand theory or detailed policy prescription,” Obama did have three ingredients he said he believes are necessary for a functioning democracy: a limited, yet adaptive government, the maintaining of a “basic level of civility in our public debate” and civic participation.
On his first point, Obama conceded that there has, since the days of the Founding Fathers, been a belief in this country that government cannot solve every problem facing its people. But at the same time, he said many believe that some problems are too big for people to solve for themselves, “some things we can only do together.”
The president cited a series of examples of the government’s greatest successes, from the construction of cross-continental railroads to the creation of a system of public high schools to the implementation of financial reforms in the wake of the Great Depression.
Obama sought to blur partisan lines surrounding arguments over the size of government, discussing massive public initiatives launched by Republican presidents, like Abraham Lincoln and the first land-grant colleges, Teddy Roosevelt’s empowering the government to break up monopolies and Dwight Eisenhower’s creation of the Interstate Highway System.
Eschewing the common partisan argument over big government or small government, Obama reframed the question, asking instead “how we can create a smarter, better government.”
“Our government shouldn’t try to guarantee results” Obama said, “but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.
“The point is, we can and should debate the role of government in our lives,” he continued, “but remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.”
Another way to maintain the health of the American democracy, Obama said, is by ensuring a fundamental level of civility in the political arena.
“You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism,” he said. “Throwing around phrases like ‘socialists’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover’ and ‘fascist’ and ‘right-wing nut’ — that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.”
However, Obama cautioned graduates that moving away from such a political culture would not be easy.
“As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy,” Obama said. “And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.”
Obama continued: “But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.”
And that something more, Obama explained, is working to expand one’s horizons to ensure that they encounter a range of diverse viewpoints that will help them better understand the world.
“The practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship,” he explained. “It is essential for our democracy.
“And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people,” he continued. “I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it.”
Obama also called on graduates to participate in their government and act on these points in order to affect change, acknowledging that it may not be easy to do.
“I understand that one effect of today’s poisonous political climate is to push people away from participation in public life,” he said. “If all you see when you turn on the TV is name-calling, if all you hear about is how special interest lobbying and partisanship prevented Washington from getting something done, you might think to yourself, ‘What’s the point of getting involved?’”
However, Obama quickly answered his own question, saying that the point is to ensure our democracy continues forward.
“When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down,” Obama said.
And while Obama cited John F. Kennedy’s speech on the steps of the Michigan Union that laid the foundation for the Peace Corps, he said that meeting this goal does not mean that all graduates need to find work in the public sector.
“Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office — though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington,” Obama joked. “But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can.”
Before ending his speech, Obama re-emphasized the enormity of the situation he was placing in front of the Class of 2010.
“That task is now in your hands, as is the answer to the question posed at this university half a century ago about whether a free society can still compete,” Obama said. “If you are willing, as past generations were willing, to contribute part of your life to the life of this country, then I, like President Kennedy, believe we can. Because I believe in you.”
In a statement to The Michigan Daily after the ceremony, Granholm applauded Obama’s words in the Big House.
“President Obama came to the University of Michigan with a message that should resonate beyond the confines of the Big House,” Granholm wrote. “Each of us has a role to play in keeping our democracy alive, to help maintain civility in public discourse, and to participate in our society.
“It was a terrific message of hope and optimism for the future,” she continued. “It was a great honor for the graduates and our state that he chose to deliver that message here.”
In a e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily, University Provost Teresa Sullivan described the event
The atmosphere in the Big House was electrifying, and the ceremony was everything you could want,” Sullivan wrote. “The theme of “hope” was echoed in many of the talks, and it seemed appropriate for a new generation of graduates.”
Sullivan added that she was impressed by all of the planning that went into the ceremony.
“The audience could not know the many, many hours of careful planning that went into having such a large and successful event,” she continued. “Hundreds of staff, most of them volunteers, were up in the pre-dawn darkness setting up and helping to welcome our thousands of guests.”
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, told the Daily in a phone interview that the ceremony was very successful.
“The day went just as we had hoped and the fact that the rain held off was spectacular for everybody involved,” Wilbanks said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the president did not disappoint anyone sitting in that audience with a message that was so crystal clear about the need to give of oneself, to give to each other in communities around the state, the nation and the world and do it in a way that is respectful of each other.”
Wilbanks added: “I think that message was extraordinarily well-received by our graduates and I think it was just the right message.”
Before the speech, Obama received his honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Regent Andrew Richner (R–Grosse Pointe Park).
“In these difficult times you have challenged us to open our minds and work together to reach common ground,” Richner told Obama as he awarded the degree. “For all you have accomplished and for your leadership of this great nation, the University of Michigan is deeply honored to present you with this honorary degree, Doctor of Laws.”
In addition to Obama, the University awarded honorary degrees to Jean Campbell, the founding director of the University’s Center for the Education of Women, Ornette Coleman, an award-winning jazz musician and composer, Stanford Ovshinsky, a scientist and inventor, Susan Stamberg, a National Public Radio correspondent and Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering and a former dean and provost at the University.